Imagine waking up in your hotel room, ordering a big plate of English breakfast, sitting on the balcony, on a nice English summer day. As you take a sip of your coffee to gulp down the toast and bacon, you look across the balcony and watch Jasprit Bumrah steam into bowl at Kane Williamson. You sit through the day watching a gripping contest of Test match cricket right from the balcony of your room.
In case you are confused why I am talking about an unreal dream of a cricket fan when the article is supposed to be about the venue for the ICC World Test Championship (WTC)Final 2021, just be a little patient. The final between India and New Zealand will be played at the beautiful Hampshire Bowl, which is also sometimes referred to as the Rose Bowl or the Ageas Bowl.
When the pandemic made it increasingly difficult for the ICC (International Cricket Council) and ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) to host the final of the showpiece event at Lord’s, the home of cricket, they looked towards this unique stadium for its one of a kind structure and state-of-art facilities. Interestingly enough, the stadium situated in the outskirts of Southampton was the last to get the hosting right of Test matches in England. As a matter of fact, it took Hampshire more than five years to earn the right as the ECB kept on rejecting their application. And this was happening just a decade and a half ago.
In the 1980s, the Hampshire County Club understood that it was important for their home ground to have the right of hosting international matches. However, there was no way the old Northland Road ground could have been expanded making it more suited for international cricket, due to its location. The ground was right in the middle of a residential area, which meant Hampshire had to build a new stadium.
A site, which was originally owned by Queen’s College, Oxford, was finally selected situated just outside Southampton in the West End village. The stadium was designed by Sir Michael Hopkins, who designed the centrepiece pavilion with its unique-looking tented roof, which still stands till day. The design was reminiscent of the Mount Stands at Lords, which was also designed by Hopkins. The construction started in 1997, but soon the county ran out of money. With a fresh new investment coming from cricket enthusiast and entrepreneur Rod Bransgrove, the current Hampshire chairman, the stadium finished its construction just in time for the 2001 season.
The stadium was beautiful but had only a capacity of 6,500 people. It took some time for Hampshire to rise along with its stadium. The big break came when the first-ever official T20 match was played at this ground between Hampshire and Sussex on June 13, 2003. A month later, it went on to host an ODI match, the first-ever for venue.
In 2004, with the experience of just a couple of ODI matches, the ground was awarded five games of the ICC Champions Trophy. A year later, in 2005, England played their first-ever T20I against Australia at this venue. From once being ground not fit for hosting international games, the Rose Bowl had turned their reputation and almost became the destination of fun and interesting T20 matches in England.
In 2006, they hosted England’s second ever T20I match against Sri Lanka but also went on to stage the final days of the Twenty20 Cup. This time around, the matches were played under floodlights. This might sound quite absurd to many but day-night cricket is not something that had caught on with the English masses since the Australians started playing it in the late 1970s. In fact, until 2009, Lord’s and the Oval in London, two of England’s most prestigious grounds, didn’t have the facility. Hence, with Southampton coming up with a stadium capable of hosting day-night cricket matches, it was sort of a big deal in England.
But here is when Hampshire became essentially desperate to have a Test match at this venue. They pushed hard for an Ashes Test in 2009, but Glamorgan’s SWALEC Stadium in Cardiff was given the chance. In fact, they had first applied for it in 2006. The authorities kept working at the stadium and tried to add stands and a lot more facilities. Eventually, in 2011, the Rose Bowl became a Test ground when Sri Lanka played a match against England. It wasn’t a shock that this happened right after 2010 when an independent survey done by the ECB found that the fans voted the Bowl as the ‘Best International Ground.’
In 2015, the big set-up happened when the venue opened up after the construction of a 4-star Hilton Hotel overlooking the stadium with an integrated media centre. The new stadium had 15,000 spectator capacity, which could be bumped to 25,000 with temporary seating. But the hotel changed the whole dynamics of the ground, adding a lot more than a few rooms beside the stadium. Until 2020, it was just an experience that players would have enjoyed or fans might have loved to be involved in.
But, the pandemic meant that there was a need for a bio-secure bubble for the players and it became increasingly important for boards to limit the travel of the players. Now, in this situation, what can be better than simply having the players inside the stadium all the time for a match. This is when the Rose Bowl emerged as the frontrunner to host the ICC WTC final and a whole lot of matches during the English summer in 2020.
If someone has to sum up the Hilton Hotel at the Bowl, it is a resort hotel with a huge golf course, cricket training ground, and a spa. There are a total of 171 bedrooms in this hotel, with half facing towards the cricket pitch while the other half facing the beautiful golf course. The rooms facing the pitch have balconies and a terrace, from where you can lounge around and enjoy the cricket match, without even buying a ticket.
The spa is one of the most fascinating parts of the whole experience of staying in this hotel. The entire set-up is huge and luxurious to make their guests feel refreshed. Apart from this, it has enough lounging areas, meeting rooms, and one of the biggest ballrooms on the English south coast. Each of the facilities is world-class and ideal for holding up a large group of people, which can be a corporate group or in the case of the ICC WTC Final, two large contingents of cricket players.
The golf course is truly sensational with an abundance of greenery and five beautiful lakes. Another thing which makes the whole experience of staying in Hilton much better is the first BEEFY’S by Sir Ian Botham Bar and Restaurant. The restaurant serves some delicious food and just adds the Midas touch to the whole experience.
On June 18, 2021, India and New Zealand will be playing against each other in the first-ever ICC WTC final. Southampton’s Hampshire Bowl couldn’t have been a better stadium to host this game in the middle of the pandemic. The Indian players have already reached the Hilton Hotel and are having a great time preparing for the summit clash.
It is quite amazing to think that this very ground, which didn’t exist in the last century, didn’t have a Test status till 2010 and had been criticized and looked down upon, as not a traditional English ground is about to host the first-ever final of a world event of cricket’s most traditional format. And it gets that because of its facilities, half of which didn’t make a lot of sense to people when it first came up. In 2015, it was a crazy idea. In 2020, it became the ultimate thing that cricket needed to save itself from the pandemic.
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